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Just what is “inflammation” in the body, and why is it so important to prevent it?
Inflammation is characterized by redness, swelling, stiffness, or pain—or all of these symptoms. It’s present in every disease process, either as a cause or a consequence. Doctors identify many inflammatory diseases by the suffix “-itis,” such as allergic rhinitis, dermatitis, or arthritis. However, coronary artery disease, asthma, and many other diseases without the “itis” suffix have a strong inflammatory component.
There are typically several underlying causes of inflammation. One is infection, which triggers an immune response that uses inflammation to destroy bacteria or viruses. Another is injury, which can cause immediate acute pain or chronic long-term inflammation and pain. Sometimes, as in the case of coronary heart disease, chronic low-grade inflammation damages tissue without obvious symptoms. Nutritional deficiencies or imbalances can also promote unwanted inflammation. That’s because the body’s endocrine system uses certain nutrients as the building blocks of its pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Omega-3s lessen inflammation and can also reduce pain.
The most common treatment is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which include ibuprofen and aspirin. Steroids, such as cortisone, have an anti-inflammatory effect also. These drugs can have serious side effects. Ibuprofen increases the risk of heart attack, and NSAIDs in general increase the breakdown of joint cartilage in osteoarthritis. Surgery is sometimes a treatment, such as for knee replacement or coronary bypass, although surgery does not treat the underlying cause.
An anti-inflammatory diet is rich in cold-water fish and a variety of vegetables. Be aware that some people experience inflammation or pain after eating nightshade plants, which include tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.
Supplements can reduce the risk of and ease pain from inflammation. They don’t work as quickly as drugs, but they are far safer.
- Omega-3s.These super-healthy fats lessen inflammation and can also reduce pain. The two main omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA boosts the body’s production of prostaglandin E3, an anti-inflammatory, hormone-like compound. Meanwhile, DHA increases the body’s production of lesser-known resolvins and protectins, which also have anti-inflammatory effects. Take: 1,000–2,000 mg daily, with a higher ratio of EPA to DHA.
- Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA). Omega-6s generally promote inflammation, but GLA is the exception. GLA is a key building block of prostaglandin E1, an anti-inflammatory substance. Large amounts ease pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis. The Danish Olympic team has used a combination of omega-3 fish oils and GLA to treat athletic overuse injuries. Take: 300–700 mg daily, up to 2,000 mg daily for rheumatoid arthritis.
- Curcumin. This concentrated extract of turmeric root works through almost 100 biochemical pathways to reduce inflammation. It helps with aches and pains and can be combined with omega-3s and, in the case of osteoarthritis, with glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate. Take: 300–700 mg of standardized curcumin daily.
- Multivitamin. Studies conducted at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas showed that taking a multivitamin every day can lower levels of C-reactive protein, a key marker of inflammation. Multivitamins also protect against nutritional deficiencies, some of which can promote inflammation, as mentioned earlier. For example, zinc deficiency can increase free radical levels and cause inflammation, as can a B-vitamin deficiency. Take: Follow label directions.
- Boswellia. The resins of Boswellia serrata, a tree that grows in India, are commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, and they are rich in a group of compounds called boswellic acids. Boswellia blocks 5-lipoxygenase, an enzyme involved in the body’s production of inflammatory compounds. Several studies have used 200 mg of boswellic acid extracts three times daily to treat rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Take: Follow label directions.
- Pycnogenol and Grape Seed Extract. These two concentrates have chemical similarities. Human research on Pycnogenol, an extract of French maritime pine bark, shows impressive anti-inflammatory properties in amounts of 150 mg or more daily. A recent study found that grape seed extract reduced leg swelling from extended periods of sitting. Take: 50–150 mg daily.
Inflammation in Heart Disease and Cancer
In the late 1990s, Paul Ridker, MD, of Harvard Medical School clearly showed that elevated blood levels of C-reactive protein were a sign of low-grade inflammation and a prime risk factor for coronary artery disease. Inflammation damages artery walls, leading to cholesterol deposits as the body’s misguided attempt at healing the damage. Ridker also found that C-reactive protein stimulates the production of other inflammatory substances.
Inflammation also promotes the growth and proliferation of cancer. It increases the breakdown of tissue and can cause muscle wasting. High levels of C-reactive protein also predict the risk of death from cancer, so it makes sense to lower C-reactive protein levels.
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